The women driving change in Afghanistan must continue to thrive

As I cut open a loaf of bread on Sunday morning, I thought of the Afghan bread I’ve savoured on trips to Kabul. Of the bakeries, the round flat fresh loaves displayed and sold through shop windows, the fronts of peoples’ homes. And most of all, I thought of the millions of women in Afghanistan, preparing breakfast for their families, fearing a knock, a shout, a shot.

The progress achieved on women’s rights in Afghanistan has been profound. Under earlier Taliban rule, Afghan girls and women were prohibited from attending school and from working in most jobs outside of the home. Until earlier this month, more than one third of all Afghan students were female and adult women can be found working throughout the professions – in education, healthcare, business and in parliament. These advances have started to transform Afghan society. Afghan women have worked, struggled and defended their newly gained rights helping their country advance along the path toward bringing about a fuller democracy.

International Alert believes that building long-lasting peace involves dealing with the reasons why people fight in the first place and supporting societies to manage their differences and conflicts without resorting to violence. It requires changes in attitudes, norms and behaviours, with diverse efforts from across society to ensure that people are safe from harm, have access to law and justice, are included in the political decisions that affect them, have access to better economic opportunities, and enjoy better livelihoods. Access to inclusive, diverse and representative media is a key building block of peace.

We have been proud to work alongside some of the female journalists in Afghanistan who were leading changes in both societal expectations of the role of women, and the nature and quality of the information that was published and broadcast through their work. The United Nations has long emphasized that, in conflict-affected areas, greater inclusion of women is fundamental to achieving peace: the voices of all must contribute to the creation of the country’s story. Through their reporting, Afghanistan’s female journalists have not only advanced this story, but have shown the next generation by their own example the important role women can and should play in developing Afghan society.

I have a vivid memory of a drive through Kabul city in 2014, wrapped up on my lurid green headscarf and salwar kameez and slightly battered car, deliberately low profile as a security measure. Watching life go on around us, as we INGO workers once again analysed the present, the future, I had this very strong feeling of international futility, and of the need for Afghans to sort out Afghanistan. This was not a judgement that they weren’t, more a recognition that the resources – and political intervention – that the West was throwing, in their billions, at the country were part of the problem, and not necessarily in a good way.

I am shocked but not surprised Afghanistan ‘fell’ to the Taliban so quickly. Their taking power in so many places, so fast, resulted from their understanding of the nature of power in Afghanistan, and the Afghan people’s ability to see the way the wind is blowing. Governance in Afghanistan, as in many places, has long been undertaken on the basis of providing resources and support. People support those powerholders who they believe will bring them resources, support, influence. If the power of their leaders (and power being the ability to provide resources, support and space for influence) wains, people look elsewhere. Once the providers of the resources, support and influence behind the Afghan government declared they were leaving, it was a waiting game for the Taliban. As Biden repeated that the Afghan government has 300,000 well equipped troops, he missed this point: that power in Afghanistan (or anywhere?) is not about who has the most equipment, or resources, but who has the best network of relationships. Power is about people. So is peace.

The Taliban take-over of Kabul throws us, international peacebuilders, the challenge that the military coup in Myanmar presented in February: how can we continue to accompany our partners, and hold open the space for civil society and peacebuilding, in circumstances of such restriction and fear to even communicate? And how can we do so in a way that respects what we have learnt over decades, that change must be led by those who know their societies best?

Immediately, Western governments must use their resources, support and influence to do everything they can to keep alive the very people who have driven change in Afghanistan. At International Alert we are fearful for the safety of those professional women we worked alongside. We call on the UK, US and other Western governments to provide safe haven not just to those who have worked for the Afghan military, but also to those who have worked for Afghan peace: journalists, charity workers. They must be able to continue to thrive, to again lead change in Afghanistan.  

And from next week, next month, how can we support to ensure that, if large numbers of Afghans flee to Tajikistan and Pakistan, they and their host communities can bake and break bread in peace? The lands they are heading for have their own challenges – and in Pakistan’s case, has already host three million Afghan refugees over two decades. Whatever lessons we take from the Taliban return to power, we must ensure that the aid we provide to those fleeing does not exacerbate existing tensions or cause new ones.

The road to a more positive peace in Afghanistan is currently unimaginable, and is not ours to imagine. Instead, those of us who got to buy bread in peace this weekend, must apply everything we have learnt from our Afghan colleagues about analysing conflict, to prevent conflicts in the region getting worse, and hold the space open for Afghans and their neighbours to work again towards making them better.

Policymakers wondering how best to respond to the chaotic scenes witnessed at Kabul airport this week would do well by underwriting these aspirations.